- Statement from the Electoral Reform Society for immediate release, Tuesday 7th April 2020. Contact [email protected] / 07717211630 to arrange interviews or for more information
- Forward planning: Wales to hold first live-broadcast ‘virtual Senedd’ this Wednesday – ERS Cymru comment/interviews available
The House of Commons authorities have agreed plans to move to a ‘virtual Parliament’ if necessary after recess, following calls from the ERS and a coalition of MPs.
Campaigners issued the call for a digital meeting of parliamentarians in March, after numbers able to attend the Palace of Westminster collapsed amid the coronavirus crisis. If MPs cannot meet in person, democracy organisations say MPs must be able to debate and vote remotely from isolation.
The new virtual Parliament plans are understood to require the consent of the Commons – which means the government must introduce a motion as soon as Parliament reconvenes. It is likely to require cross-party agreement to nod it through, the former House of Commons clerk has stated .
House of Commons Commission member Pete Wishart MP said ‘questions, statements and urgent questions [can all be] done remotely’ under the plans. It would be ‘a completely new way of conducting parliamentary business’, Mr Wishart said.
A statement on the Commons website  says authorities aim to get the system ready by the end of recess on April 21st. However, it is unclear whether MPs will be able to vote remotely, rather than just ask questions/debate – potentially side-lining voters’ representation.
There are also growing calls for a Coronavirus Response Select Committee to meet digitally during recess, first proposed by the ERS  and following the cross-party model used in New Zealand. Standing Orders were changed to allow Select Committees to meet digitally during recess, after the ERS wrote to the Speaker last month.
Darren Hughes, Chief Executive of the Electoral Reform Society, said:
“It is clear that the coronavirus crisis is affecting all of us, and disrupting the foundations of our society. Our thoughts go out to the Prime Minister and his family at this desperate time.
“The safety of everyone has to be number one. That means no one should be pressured to go into work – MPs among them. It is welcome that the Commons authorities are responding to calls for a ‘virtual Parliament’ with both speed and diligence.
“Scrutiny must continue as life-changing decisions continue to be made every day. That means Parliament must adapt to return this month and convene digitally – ensuring voters’ concerns from across the country are heard and properly represented at this urgent hour.
“It is essential that MPs are not just able to contribute from isolation but vote too, learning from the experiences of other parliaments that are already allowing this to happen. We look forward to seeing these plans develop to ensure democracy and good governance doesn’t disappear when we need it most.
“Government and opposition must work together to put these vital plans for a virtual Parliament into action – for the sake of MPs, staff and the country as a whole.”
Notes to Editors
Forward planning: Wales to hold first live-broadcast ‘virtual Senedd’ this Wednesday – ERS Cymru comment/interviews available
Politico report that Lords Speaker Norman Fowler wrote to all peers last night setting out how an oral questions session might work online:
“Oral questions pose particular challenges, and if we are to open participation up to all members, we will have to change how we work,” he warned. “The questioner and the minister would have to be willing to participate via video link, and a pre-selected list of supplementary questioners would have to be drawn up, much like a speakers’ list for debates. This would allow participants to make arrangements to participate remotely and seek IT guidance in advance, should that be required.” Former BBC chief (and crossbench peer) John Birt has agreed to advise Fowler on how best to proceed with the digital plans.
The ERS are the UK’s leading democracy group, campaigning for proportional representation and wider political reform. For latest ERS press releases see here. Get in touch to be added to our media list.